United States Should Tailor Its Russia Policy to Build on Shared Views and Interests

For Release

April 1, 2009

The United States has an opportunity to improve relations with Russia and build on shared views and interests, rather than pursue coercive steps that may one day backfire, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today. At the same time, researchers say, the United States and its allies cannot give Russia a veto on key policy goals.

The study finds that as Russia's economy grew in recent years, so did Moscow's global involvement and influence. Today, Russia's economic growth has slowed, but Russia's confidence and desire for a global role remain substantial.

The report, Russian Foreign Policy: Sources and Implications, examines Russia's domestic policies, economic development and foreign policies, as well as how they translate into security principles at home and abroad. It also considers the implications of Russia's evolving approaches for the United States.

“Today's Russia differs significantly from the Russia of a decade ago,” said Olga Oliker, the report's lead author and a senior international policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Even with the economic downturn, it is wealthier, more stable, increasingly less democratic and more assertive globally. If U.S. policymakers hope to work with Moscow on key foreign and security policy goals, they must be aware of how they align — or don't align — with Russian's own interests.”

Domestically, the political measures established by former President Vladimir Putin changed how the Russian government functions and how it rules. The elimination of elections for regional governors and the upper house of Parliament have diminished the government's accountability to Russian citizens.

Moreover, according to RAND researchers, popular opposition to the government under now Prime Minister Putin and new President Dmitry Medvedev will remain weak. Most Russians take pride in the Russian state for restoring Russia as an independent power. Russia's stability is threatened, however, by corruption, hypercentralization and, most proximately, by increasing violence in its economically underdeveloped North Caucasus region.

Economically, Russia enjoyed significant growth from 1998–2008. Even in the wake of the current financial crisis, Russia remains poised to become one of the four largest economies in Europe by 2025. While Russia will not continue the stunning gross domestic product growth (26 percent annually in dollar terms) that it enjoyed in recent years, lower oil prices do not mean doom. While oil and gas played a significant role in Russia's boom, even more important were its growing telecommunications, banking, retailing, wholesaling and tourism sectors. Oil revenue has, however, allowed Moscow to spend more on defense and internal security.

Russia's foreign policy priorities reflect its goals of continued economic growth and increased global prestige, according to researchers, and its immediate neighborhood remains a critical foreign policy priority. Russia's military action against Georgia last year was intended to send a clear signal of Moscow's intent to defend and define its interests as it feels appropriate.

However, Russia's ties with European countries to its west are no less important. Although Russia has rejected many elements of the European democratic model, Russian leaders and citizens still see themselves to a large extent as European, and Europe is crucial to Russia's economic stability. Moscow has successfully built bilateral ties with countries like Germany inside the European Union, and with Turkey outside the EU. However, relations are hampered by Russian efforts to use energy ties and threat of force to extract political gains from its neighbors, according to the RAND report.

As part of its effort to build up a global role, Moscow has sought to become more involved in Asia and the Middle East. Despite distrust on both sides, China and Russia have increased cooperation. In the Middle East, Russia has played a role in efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear weapons program, although its approaches have differed from those of the United States.

Russia's relations with the United States have grown rockier in recent years, in large part because its leaders feel that U.S. policies have undercut Russia's interests. The United States' criticism of Russia's domestic policies, U.S. plans for missile defense and U.S. efforts to spread democracy to countries on Russia's borders have led Russian leaders to conclude that the United States is seeking to counter Russia, according to RAND researchers. The growing mutual suspicion that has emerged has the potential to dangerously escalate, damaging the interests of both states.

Among the key recommendations, the report urges U.S. policymakers to:

  • vigorously pursue new arms control agreements with Moscow
  • allay Russian fears about proposed U.S. missile defenses in Europe
  • reevaluate promotion of energy pipeline routes, focusing less on policy goals and more on market sustainability
  • rebuild institutionalized, high-level consultations and maintain existing dialogues, including military-to-military contacts

“Although relations with Russia will be difficult for the foreseeable future, these policy changes could lay the groundwork for progress,” Oliker said. “At the same time, the United States must be prepared to deal with a recalcitrant Russian and work to prevent the relationship turning adversarial.”

Other authors of the study are Keith Crane, Lowell H. Schwartz and Catherine Yusupov. The report is available at www.rand.org.

The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

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